The STEM commandments: WISE

Charley Rogers talks to WISE’s Helen Wollaston and Gillian Arnold about UK STEM provision, and what developments have been, and are yet to be made

What are the biggest issues in STEM education at present?

Helen: I put girls at the top of the list. WISE analysis shows only 7% of girls leave the UK education system with qualifications required to work in engineering or technology – compared to 24% of boys. This year’s exam results showed a welcome increase in take-up of computing and physics A-level by girls, but they still represent just 10% and 22% of the total respectively. Let no one explain this by lack of ability – if we managed to persuade just half of the girls who achieved grade A or above in GCSE physics this year to pursue the subject at A-level, it would double the number. It is a failure of the education system to engage girls in these core STEM subjects. 

This is a really serious issue because it rules girls out of so many exciting and rewarding jobs, and limits the talent pool available to UK business and industry, which in turn has a negative impact on the country’s capability for productivity and innovation. Confidence and capability in the teaching of maths to students is another fundamental issue which affects boys as well as girls. It cannot be right that 40% of students fail maths GCSE. We must find a better way to make maths relevant to students from an early age – to improve their life chances as well as their job prospects.  

What is the biggest difference in STEM teaching now, compared to 10 or 20 years ago? 

Gillian: There is a significant lack of skill in the teaching community around the new subjects being taught in secondary schools, both at GCSE and A-level. When the curriculum changed a couple of years ago, teachers had little time to prepare for the new parts of ICT and coding. This is absolutely not a failing in the teaching community, since all evidence is that they are working hard to acquire the skills required. They are ably supported by CAS (Computing at Schools) and by the master teachers in the CAS network.

However, it is clear that being enthusiastic about technology as taught in schools will again be dependent on the personal confidence of the teachers. Hopefully this situation will improve over time. The other issue is that when teachers fail to engage girls with IT because they have imbibed all of the messages the media puts out about technology being a role and pastime for boys, we don’t get girls entering the pipeline in technology subjects.  

 What are the most influential resources in addressing the issues in STEM education? 

Helen: WISE has developed resources to engage girls by talking to them about the attributes of people who enjoy science and technology, such as People Like Me. It is a different approach, starting with how the girls see themselves rather than trying to sell them subjects they perceive as boring or difficult.  

Gillian: Some of the private schools have now started to consider providing education in unconscious bias and gender bias for their teaching staff. Equally, the media has recognised the importance of treating girls and boys ‘gender neutrally’ and this is finding a willing audience in parents and teachers alike. In STEM subjects, which are traditionally focused on boys, this may make a real difference as momentum grows around the message.  

How have developments in edtech influenced the way STEM is taught? 

Gillian: At a recent CAS conference the networking room was full of what appeared to be toys and robots and widgets. On closer inspection, these were practical aids for teaching coding. Teaching the code to make things move and spin and speak and flash; an applied way to show the link between the world of technology that we now inhabit and the code that makes it all happen. Teachers have the ability to share expertise and resources across the web now, and so reinvention of tools and methodologies can be eliminated and teaching can be about swift reuse of the best tools to engage with the students. I was also pleased to see that these tools were not just aimed at the boys, but would obviously retain an interest for the girls too. This is progress, so long as schools ensure that girls sign up for STEM courses in the first place. 

How do we balance equal-opportunity, comprehensive STEM education with the financial boundaries faced by schools?

Helen: In WISE’s experience, industry partners are more than happy to help. We can do more to link schools with companies in the local area who want to invest in their future talent pool. This could be by providing kit, role models to inspire children in and out of the classroom, and volunteers with business experience to join the Board of Governors.  

Gillian: Equal opportunity should also focus on the number of children from the poorest backgrounds who have no access to computers at home.  For information on this, see Technology in Education, a SystemView from The Education Foundation. Not only are girls in these families lacking access at school but also at home. To capitalise on the wealth of opportunity in the female 50% of the population, we must ensure that schools and families understand that STEM subjects are for all, and that they have the ability to provide access.

Should STEM education focus more on skills and application than specific knowledge? 

Helen: Applied teaching certainly works for many students – particularly girls who often take a pragmatic view about the future value of subjects they choose at school. They question the point of maths for example, unless they can relate it to their everyday lives, future employment, or big-picture issues close to their heart such as climate change, health or world poverty. 

What developments in UK STEM teaching would you like to see in the next five years?

Helen: Schools’ performance should be judged on employment and life outcomes, and not just exam grades and university entrance. Apprenticeships are for many a much better route into future pay and prospects than university. A more gender-balanced participation in core STEM subjects of maths, physics and computing at 16 and beyond is also important. Another development I’d like to see is the integration of industry partners in mainstream schools, particularly in state schools in disadvantaged communities who currently miss out on much of the STEM outreach and engagement activities enjoyed by students in the independent sector. 


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